This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
The judiciary is the quietest branch of government. That can make it tough for voters to size up candidates for crucially important positions on the bench.
In Washington, D.C., most people probably wouldn’t recognize Chief Justice John Roberts walking by on the sidewalk. That’s doubly or triply true of members of Washington’s Supreme Court, whose doings are little noticed except when rare landmark decisions – like the January ruling on public school funding – hit the news.
Voters face three choices for the high court in the Aug. 7 election. It’s a little misleading to call this a primary, because primaries lead to runoffs – yet any one of these three contests could be decided in August.
Under judicial election laws, a Supreme Court candidate who wins a majority in the primary takes home the gold. The “primary” then amounts to the final. Serious voters will want to look at these races closely.
We hope they’ll look particularly closely at the contest for Position 8, which pits Justice Steve Gonzalez against Bruce Danielson.
Gonzalez, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year by Gov. Chris Gregoire, is superbly qualified. A graduate of Berkeley School of Law, he has been a prosecutor for the City of Seattle and the U.S. Justice Department. He served on the King County Superior Court for 10 years before his appointment.
Danielson is not remotely a match.
In this case, the endorsements say it all. Roughly 250 judges across the state support Gonzalez, including current and retired Supreme Court justices, superior and district court judges, magistrates and court commissioners.
Tellingly, at least 10 Kitsap County judges have lent their names to Gonzalez’s campaign. Danielson practices law in Kitsap County and has unsuccessfully run for the bench there. The county’s judges presumably know him well. Enough said.
In the race for Position 2, 12-year incumbent Susan Owens faces challenges from Douglas McQuaid and Scott Stafne, who practice in Seattle and Arlington, respectively.
Neither McQuaid nor Stafne is mounting much of a campaign; perhaps they are hoping for a fluke victory (it happens in judicial races). Owens – who’s been on the bench in some capacity for more than 30 years – enjoys broad support among those who know the courts. She is unquestionably the superior candidate.
Position 9 offers the richest and most complex choice. Former Justice Richard Sanders, who was unseated two years ago, faces former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer and high-powered defense attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud.
Each has very considerable strengths. Sanders and McCloud may possess the most formidable intellects. But Sanders has already proven himself a doctrinaire libertarian on the court, and McCloud to all appearances would be a fiery liberal.
We’d prefer someone with less of an agenda. Hilyer might fit the bill; he has plenty of trial court experience and is well-regarded by other judges.
The most unconventional alternative is Ladenburg. He’s spent most of his career making things happen, most notably as Pierce County’s chief executive and prosecuting attorney. He offers the court an encyclopedic, trench-level understanding of intricate local problems – things like transportation, zoning, municipal government and collective bargaining.
It’s been our experience, having watched Ladenburg for many years, that he is willing to make tough, unpopular decisions in the public interest. That’s a compelling qualification for Washington’s court of last resort.